Debate club seems like a cool concept. Arguing can be fun if done a certain way. But modern American politics feels like the opposite of high school debate teams trying to dress nicely and civilly joust at a podium over topics of the day. Nah, our national debate club has gone WWF. It’s sort of like a big blur of broken chair legs and jail-made knives, with slurs and shouts filling the air. And I’m so weary of that barroom brawl today. So, let me step aside from teams if I can and just try to talk about a broader issue: the process of debating ideas, which feels as wobbly as a drunk on a pogo stick.
I believe these three things: Persuasion is never accomplished through humiliation. (Who has ever changed your mind with “you idiot!”?) Disagreeing passionately without hatred consuming your heart is a true test of your character and mine. And, healthy debating is an acquired skill that requires something in yourself in the game beyond just your unbridled rage.
We seem increasingly dismissive of these ideas. Instead, there’s a rabid element in the air. A frothing mouth is no longer the shame it once was. To be crazy, to be extreme, these are selling points, not deficiencies when there’s such a cacophony of noise.
Man, that’s nuts. I don’t care about your politics. I’m appealing to your humanity, which matters more than your politics or mine. Can you sense this rabid vibe in America? Pull back a minute; see it a different way. Let me ask: Do you feel disdain for the person with you on an elevator who is momentarily in your space, even if they are completely different than you? I doubt you do. Most everyone I’ve ever encountered on an elevator is completely cordial. We’re stuck in a tight space for a minute. We have nowhere to go. Our existence together is brief and not worth going somewhere bad. We often make the best of the moment and have a nice exchange, or sometimes it’s just quiet. But it’s never been bad, not in my life. It’s just a brief, random, human closeness.
On a grander scale, isn’t that what we’re all doing in this bigger world, occupying space with each other for a short period of time — often randomly? We are on a space rock in a vast universe for a sneeze of time. Can’t we realize that we’re stuck here together and be decent about it? Life is short. It’s not worth all this hate. It’s not! (Am I sounding like Rodney King, saying “can’t we all just get along?” Maybe. But isn’t this a decent wish?)
Of course, it’s never so simple. But the complexity ought to be addressed inwardly first, not outwardly. For instance, I will always be disappointed with other people who don’t understand what I think they should. That’s an unchangeable fact of life. And this is surely true for you, too. It’s true for everyone. None of us will ever understand certain people. They infuriate us! Right? The issue then becomes: what do you do with those disagreeable people in your head? And when I think about this, I realize, this is about my identity, not theirs, my worth, not theirs.
I have to remind myself constantly that no one controls how emotions hit them. That includes me. We each feel what we feel. It’s just there, unchosen. But actions are a completely different story. Every action is weighted with personal responsibility, no matter what we feel. For sure, I’ve had all sorts of emotions for people who I think are totally misguided in this world. I might feel utter rage at them, fear of them, pity for them, hopelessness about them, resolve to change them. But what do I do with these emotions? Do I shout directly at them? Do I try to find every possible way to belittle them, online or in person, laughing at them, ridiculing them? Do I take joy in their suffering? Do I actually attack them physically as frustration takes complete control and overrides all sanity? (That seems to be more popular by the day.) I realize this: My reaction to such people is not a test of their character. No, it’s a test of my character. And it’s a test of yours, too. How do you deal with all those people who seem like utter fools, because you see fools, don’t you? Are you going to shoot them? Are you going to belittle them? Are you going to feel complete joy if they bleed or grieve? Or, are you going to talk reasonably to them, perhaps pray for them in your own way, maybe forgive them, maybe search for your own peace with what troubles you about them? Well, such questions are about you, not them. And if you constantly give in to the darkness of your worst emotions about others, that’s on you, not them. Same with me if that’s how I act toward my perceived “fools.” Because, yes, just like you, I think I see real idiots in this world. But what right does identifying a fool give me to harm or belittle him?
I wish we could find some way to debate in a healthier way. It doesn’t have to be stuffy, but it doesn’t have to be so baseline nasty either. Is there a middle ground? Have you noticed that we seem to believe that civility and passion are mutually exclusive, as if you have to be one or the other, that you can’t be both. I totally disagree. You can be civil and extremely passionate, too.
I occasionally call up on Youtube an old James Baldwin and William F. Buckley debate at Cambridge University in 1965 about the American dream. It’s in black and white. It’s a truly charged environment, but it seems like it’s from Mars, nothing like our current world, because it mixes formal civility and an intense passion articulated with beauty. That old Youtube clip may be seen as stuffy by some, but I find it uplifting and inspiring, because I think good debate is one of humanity’s great achievements. And I think our modern ad hominem, slugfest of constant character assassination is like a mouth overwhelmed by gum disease and rotten teeth. It turns us ugly. And whatever comes out of our mouths is colored by that foul, oral disease of modern American society.
No doubt, we are in oddly angry times that are wearing on us. But I want to keep my hope for civil society, even amid such shockingly uncivil acts in the headlines seemingly every day. These horrible acts feel like constant body blows to the nation, which includes all of us, not just our team.
It’s worth remembering that the first order of business in a civil society is voting. It’s the way we formally settle societal debates. Right now, the political system feels as flawed as can be, less perfect than ever, with something crooked at the core. And it’s like hatred is the electricity pulsing through our political power grid. I am terribly sad about this. Are you?
But I still believe voting matters. I believe voting is our strongest connection to civilized society. We as individuals have a right to say how we feel we should be governed. This needs to be understood, accepted and valued by all citizens. We need to all agree that voting should be as legitimate and fair as possible no matter our political allegiances, because this greater allegiance to the democratic process is comparable to our allegiance to the flag itself. This greater good should transcend red or blue — colors that are both represented in that cloth. It’s not a red flag or a blue flag. It’s a red, white and blue flag.
I wish for impassioned debate without such hate. I wish for respect by all citizens for our electoral process, with fairness paramount. And if you’re not voting, here’s a question: Are you willing to give up your right to vote? Because isn’t that essentially what your absence implies?
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.